Family Tries To Dig Out From Upside-Down Mortgage

Milo and Lin White are more than $100,000 underwater on their Phoenix home. Milo was laid off last October, and to find work, he had to move to Salt Lake City without his family. The home in Phoenix is so worth so much less than its mortgage that it won't sell, so Milo commutes from Utah to Arizona most weekends. When he's gone, Lin struggles to keep the household afloat. But Milo and Lin refuse to walk away from the house.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Housing prices are finally starting to recover, but the disaster has not let up when it comes to mortgages. Nearly one-fourth of all borrowers owe more on their mortgage than their home is now worth. That's called being underwater on your loan. We'll be traveling through that underwater world now with the stories of two homeowners. First, here is Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

PETER O'DOWD: The story of this family might as well begin at the airport.

(Soundbite of airport)

O'DOWD: It's a place that Milo and Lin White(ph) have grown accustomed to. Milo lost his job at a steel construction company in the fall of 2008. He was lucky. He quickly found work at a similar company. Here's the rub, though: It was 660 miles away, in Salt Lake City. So Milo had to move away from his family. And now, for the last year, Lin drives through rush-hour traffic twice a month to pick up Milo from the airport so he can spend a weekend at home.

Ms. LIN WHITE: There's a lot of times I find myself on the verge of tears. It is, it's hard not having him here. Here he is. Hey, welcome home.

Mr. MILO WHITE: How are you?

O'DOWD: There are more than 100,000 reasons why Lin and her two teenagers cannot live with Milo. The couples' home in a Phoenix suburb is on the market for $260,000. But the Whites owe the bank $117,000 more than what the home is worth. Since August, when the house went up for sale, not a single buyer has made an offer.

Mr. WHITE: We went in with our eyes open. We thought we had a home that was worth what we were paying for it. And we honestly, at one point, thought that it was going to be an investment that would help us in our retirement.

O'DOWD: The Whites represent one of the nearly 700,000 homeowners trying to dig out from an upside-down mortgage in Arizona. According to the research firm First American Core Logic, nearly half of the mortgages in the state are underwater. Only Nevada is worse. All this negative equity has a way of keeping families locked into homes they cannot sell. Milo White is a good example.

Right now, his employer pays his rent in Salt Lake. But that stipend will end next year, and the Whites will have to carry both their mortgage and Milo's rent in Utah - something they just can't do. They're hoping to find a buyer before that happens. Otherwise, foreclosure is the only option.

Mr. WHITE: We could've walked away from it, like a lot of people. And we don't feel right about that.

O'DOWD: The irony is that Lin and Milo should be well-off by now. Lin works at the local school district and between them, the couple makes just over six figures. But cars break down, a kid needs a tooth pulled, the dog gets sick.

Mr. WHITE: So, even though we have a very good income, there really is nothing left over.

O'DOWD: By now the retirement fund is gone and to save pennies, the Whites have killed their TV and their home telephone.

(Soundbite of bell)

O'DOWD: Lin sits around the kitchen table and stirs milk into a Christmas-blend coffee. She says there will be no Christmas presents this year. The children know that. One is 18, on his way to college. The other is a girl named Makaley(ph). She's a sophomore in high school. And when her parents asked if she would talk to me, Makaley bolted upstairs in tears.

Ms. WHITE: It's almost like she's in denial. She just won't talk about it. Anything to do with Utah, she just does not want to talk about it.

O'DOWD: Lin says her family is on edge.

Ms. WHITE: I find myself saying, I just wish this would be over with; I can't wait 'til this is all behind me. This is the last year that my son will be here before he goes off to college, and you don't want to wish that away.

(Soundbite of music)

O'DOWD: This lifestyle is also getting stale for Milo, who spends most nights alone in Salt Lake City. To pass the time, he writes music and plays the blues.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITE: (Singing) Too long gone. Can't recall the sweetness of your mouth.

O'DOWD: The Whites aren't looking for sympathy. They say they're lucky to have two jobs and healthy kids. Their separation would end tomorrow if someone bought the house.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITE: (Singing) You know she's never coming home.

O'DOWD: But in two days, Milo will leave again. He and Lin will rise before dawn, drive to the airport in a broken car, and part for two weeks with another kiss goodbye.

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

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